The Life of Fern Laurine Stoddard (1929-2020) Part III: A Pioneer Day Scholarship

On 24 July 1847, Brigham Young and the first group of Latter-day Saint Pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley to establish a settlement. In the years that followed, residents of Utah, Idaho, Arizona and other areas of Mormon settlement would celebrate the 24th of July as Pioneer Day – a commemoration of the pioneers who settled the mountain west, as well as a tribute to modern-day pioneers who pave the way for future generations.

The 1946 Ogden Pioneer Days Festival was going to be a grand event. Over the previous several years, the extent and mood of the festivities had been dampened by the war, but with the war over and many of the veterans returning home, a major celebration with a $40,000 budget was planned for Pioneer Day of 1946.[1] Part of the festival in 1946 was a competition to become the Ogden Pioneer Day Sweetheart. Letters of invitation were sent to 135 high schools in Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming inviting the senior classes of 1946 to select contestants to participate in the Sweetheart competition.[2]

Fern in her senior year of high school at North Gem School. ca. 1946

The 1946 senior class of North Gem School in Bancroft, Idaho numbered just over twenty individuals.[3] They selected Fern Stoddard as their representative for the competition and by 14 May 1946, Fern’s application was received by the festival committee.[4] She was among the first to enter the competition, perhaps because of her eagerness to pursue the coveted grand prize for the competition: a two-year scholarship to Weber College which also included lodging for the first year. As an alternative, the winner might also opt for a chaperoned tour of one of Utah’s state parks. Competitors were to be judged on scholarship (40 points), horsemanship (30 points), and personality (30 points). In the end, a festival sweetheart would be selected along with two attendants, but only the Sweetheart would receive the grand prize.[5]  

For this competition, Fern’s scholarship was described in a letter of recommendation from her principal. Additional evidence of her scholarship came from the fact that ten days after her application was received, she was named valedictorian of her graduating class – a remarkable achievement given that she had skipped the eighth grade and was therefore the youngest member of her class.[6] But, Fern had not always done well in school. Fern’s childhood had been marked by the trauma of her parents’ quarrels which ended in her mother abandoning the family and her parents’ divorce in 1938. Fern was about eight years old when her mother left. Fern recalled, “School was not easy for me in my first two years, perhaps because of the discord at home. I started enjoying school about the middle of third grade and thereafter was more successful in my studies.”[7] What Fern never told her children or grandchildren was that in the months after her parents’ separation, she was sent away to live with relatives and attend school in Ogden.[8] A fact that perhaps compounded her feelings of abandonment. After her parents’ divorce, Fern’s father, Ira, remarried a widow named Martha Jane Rickman Scott. Prior to her first marriage, Mattie had worked as a schoolteacher in North Carolina and her tutoring (along with her tender love and care) certainly helped Fern in her education.

Later in her life, Fern’s children sometimes teased her because she did not know how to ride a bike. But, when they visited the family ranch in Idaho, they were left in awe at her ability on a horse. Fern descended from a long line of expert horse riders. Her great-grandfather, Judson Lyman Stoddard, was among those who carried the mail from Missouri to Salt Lake City in the early days of the Utah territory. Fern’s grandfather, Elanthropy Stoddard continued in the steps of his father and managed several ranches in Utah and Idaho. Fern’s father, Ira Stoddard, ran away from home when he was in the eighth grade to join his father in Idaho and help out on a ranch.[9] Though Elanthropy tried to incentivize Ira to return home by working the living daylights out of him, Ira stayed in Idaho for the remainder of his life, capturing, taming and selling wild horses, raising cattle and sheep, farming, and range riding. Under her father’s tutoring, Fern also learned to ride a horse extremely well. Fern recalled, “One year I was chosen queen of the rodeo. In preparation for the day, Dad coached me every evening on what it would be like to have the horse run up to the grandstand and stop quickly. The object of the practice was to help me hold my balance, not bounce up and down, and not sail over the head of the horse when he stopped. I rode Old Fox in the parade and the grand entry.”[10]

“Personality,” the third category of judging for the Pioneer Sweetheart competition, seems to have been a catch-all category for beauty, charm, humor, generosity, intelligence, talents, spirituality and eloquence in manner and speech. It is unclear exactly what the criteria were for this portion of the competition. In any case, Fern’s excellent character and personality had been developed through many of the unique experiences of her growing up years – whether those qualities could be measured or not. Perhaps as a result of the trauma of her childhood and as the youngest in her family, Fern often sought to please her parents, older siblings, stepsiblings, Uncle Hen, teachers, and superiors in any way that she could and acted as a peacemaker in her family. Though she was initially despised by her peers when she was advanced to the eighth grade after just a few weeks in the seventh grade, her peers’ respect for her grew in later years as evidenced by Fern’s service as student body secretary, a Junior Prom committee member, her participation in band and drama, and the many fond notes and messages written in her yearbook.[11]  Fern’s work on the farm also stretched her in ways that taught her the importance of hard work and demanded flexibility, patience, courage, humility and cooperation. During World War II, Fern’s brothers were called off to war and as a result, Fern was suddenly required to assist in the daily operations of the farm and ranch including field labor which she had never before done. In addition to her normal chores caring for the lambs, selling eggs, cooking, cleaning, laundering, ironing, canning, sewing, and milking, Fern and her sister Betty assisted the hired help (conscientious objectors and Mexican migrants) with the hay rake and stacker teams. Despite her feelings of inadequacy and after struggling through frustration and tears on the part of both Fern and her father, she was eventually able to learn to drive and manage the stacker team in just the right way to stack the hay correctly.[12] This skill may also have further refined her horsemanship. In scholarship, horsemanship and personality, Fern was uniquely prepared for the Sweetheart competition.

17 contestants for the Ogden Pioneer Day Sweetheart competition, 13 July 1946. Front row left to right: Betty Jean Ercanback, Wanship; Carole Baker, Richfield; Helen Bagley, Afton, Wyoming; Ramona Chamberlain, Orderville. Middle row seated: Fern Stoddard, Bancroft, Idaho; Beverly Vanderlinden, Salt Lake City; Mary Olene Taylor, Cedar City; Doris Hadfield, Riverside; LuRene Eller, Laketown; Alice Boyce, Sandy; Marion Blackinton, Ogden. Standing: Shirley Jean Orr, Grantsville; Audrene Harper, Corinne; Dolores Van Sickle, Plain City; Esther Barthel, Murray; Doris Gillespie, Tooele; Lucille Gygi, Salt Lake County.

Out of a field of twenty-four applicants, nineteen arrived in Ogden for the competition on 12 July 1946 representing schools throughout the Mountain West.[13] That evening they retired to South Fork Canyon for swimming, games, introductions, an outdoor dinner, and boat rides on Pine View lake. The next day, their high school transcripts were submitted to a committee of educators for review of each individual’s scholarship. In the afternoon, each contestant was asked to demonstrate her riding skills before a committee of the Weber County Sheriff’s posse. Throughout the weekend, a secret committee observed contestants to score them on personality.[14] After tallying the weighted scores, the winner was announced.   

Alas, Fern was not selected as the competition Sweetheart. On 14 July 1946, Doris Gillespie of Tooele, Utah was named the Sweetheart of the Ogden Pioneer Day Festival and the winner of the grand prize. Helen Bagley Yeamans of Afton, Wyoming was selected as first attendant and Fern Stoddard of Bancroft, Idaho was selected as second attendant.[15] While some reports indicated that competition rules dictated that the attendants of the Sweetheart had to come from different states as the winner, others indicated that the attendants were true runners-up. If, indeed, attendants needed to come from the other states, then this may have been a blessing in disguise. One other contestant from Nevada had canceled last minute due to a leg injury leaving Helen and Fern as the only contestants from outside of Utah. In any case, it seems that the competition had been close. While this was likely a disappointment to Fern, she followed through on her responsibilities as attendant to Doris. Her sportsmanship and grace may have saved her hopes for the future.

Image courtesy of Newspapers.com

After the announcement, Doris and her aides were the guests of honor at the Ben Lomond Hotel in Ogden and were interviewed on the radio. Later, Doris was taken to Hayden’s Ladies Wear and was outfitted in a complete western outfit. When asked about her feelings, Doris reported, “Oh, I am thrilled. I hope people will like me.” when asked if she would accept the scholarship or the tour of a state park, she reported that she couldn’t decide off-hand which to accept.[16]  

After staying with family for a few days, the “famed trio” returned to Ogden on 18 July for the commencement of festivities.[17] On Thursday evening the 18th, they participated in the children’s parade. The next morning, they received the keys to the city from the mayor, David S. Romney. They next attended a city commission introductory meeting, followed by a Kiwanis club luncheon. On Friday evening they participated in the grand opening night of the rodeo.[18] They continued to participate in the events of the fiesta and rodeo on Saturday evening.[19] On Sunday evening and Monday, Fern spent the holiday weekend with her sister in Salt Lake City.[20] Helen, meanwhile, spent the holiday with Doris at the Gillespie home and returned to Ogden late Monday night. Perhaps it was at that point, that Doris and Helen planned their announcements and decisions for the following day.

Image courtesy of Newspapers.com

On 23 July 1946, Doris Gillespie announced that she was declining the grand prize for the Ogden Sweetheart competition.[21] According to her, “I think the Ogden celebration is wonderful in permitting girls from all over the state and from Idaho and Wyoming to enter the contest. The honor of being Ogden’s sweetheart for a week is reward enough.” She went on to explain that several weeks before the contest, she had enrolled at the University of Utah and therefore would not use the scholarship. In response to Doris’s announcement, the contest chairman declared that the $300 that would have been paid to the winner would be divided by her attendants. Even so, the division of the reward money was nowhere near equal.

Just three days prior to the Sweetheart competition, Helen Bagley and Donald Robert Yeaman were married in Idaho Falls, Bonneville County, Idaho.[22] Because of her acceptance into the competition, Helen had planned on competing and then leaving shortly thereafter for her honeymoon. This plan was delayed, however, when she was selected as first attendant to the Sweetheart. Helen was a newlywed and while the bulk of the prize money might have been hers to claim, she opted instead for a mere $60 to assist in the expenses of a delayed honeymoon trip to Yellowstone. The reduction in her portion of the prize may have been due to the fact that a chaperone was no longer necessary for her trip. Thus, in a surprising turn of events, the third-place winner, Fern Stoddard, received $240 of prize money for a scholarship to Weber College, the second-place winner opted for a cheaper trip to Yellowstone and Doris Gillespie walked away with a new cowgirl outfit and the honor of being Ogden’s sweetheart for a week.

Fern’s initial disappointment was transformed into gratitude and joy. In the final day of the Pioneer Day Celebration, Fern beamed as she rode her horse in the grand parade. On this day celebrating the pioneers who had forged trails through the wilderness to settle in the Salt Lake Basin and the Utah Territory, the door was opened for Fern to become a pioneer in her own right. Fern would be the first individual in her family to attend college – an opportunity that would forever transform her life. Thanks to the kindness of Doris and Helen, and thanks to a series of fortunate (and what Fern considered God-inspired) events, Fern’s life course was drastically altered from her former prospects on the family ranch in Bancroft.


[1] Ogden Pioneer Days Committee, “Howdy Vets, Welcome Back,” 1946, Frank and Fern Woodbury Memorabilia and Papers, Frank and Fern Woodbury Family Archive.

[2] “Nine Girls Seek Queenship of Pioneer Fiesta,” The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah), 24 May 1946, p. 12, https://www.newspapers.com, subscription database, accessed June 2020.

[3] North Gem High School, “The Gem,” 1945, Frank and Fern Woodbury Memorabilia and Papers, Frank and Fern Woodbury Family Archive.

[4] “Two More Enter Contest,” The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah), 14 May 1946, p. 9, https://www.newspapers.com, subscription database, accessed June 2020.

[5] “Schools Joining in Festival Sweetheart Race,” The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah), 5 June 1946, p. 7, https://www.newspapers.com, subscription database, accessed June 2020.

[6] “Nine Girls Seek Queenship of Pioneer Fiesta,” The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah), 24 May 1946, p. 12, https://www.newspapers.com, subscription database, accessed June 2020; and,

Fern Stoddard, “Fern Stoddard Woodbury Personal History,” undated, p. 1.

[7] Fern Stoddard, “Fern Stoddard Woodbury Personal History,” undated, p. 1.

[8] “Kelly-Toponce News,” The North Gem Herald (Bancroft, Idaho), 1 January 1938, p. 1, https://www.newspapers.com, subscription database, accessed June 2020.

[9] Fern Woodbury, Bob Stoddard, Jack Stoddard and Barbara Rose, “Stoddard Family Reminisces,” 1983, p. 8.

[10] Fern Woodbury, Bob Stoddard, Jack Stoddard and Barbara Rose, “Stoddard Family Reminisces,” 1983, p. 8.

[11] Fern Stoddard, “Fern Stoddard Woodbury Personal History,” undated, p. 1; and,

North Gem High School, “The Gem,” 1945, Frank and Fern Woodbury Memorabilia and Papers, Frank and Fern Woodbury Family Archive.

[12] Fern Stoddard, “Fern Stoddard Woodbury Personal History,” undated, p. 1; and,

Fern Woodbury, Bob Stoddard, Jack Stoddard and Barbara Rose, “Stoddard Family Reminisces,” 1983, p. 2; and,

Fern Stoddard Woodbury, “The Personal History of fern Laurine Stoddard,” ca. November 2004.

[13] “Ogden Fete Judges Choose Pioneer Sweetheart, Aids,” The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah), 14 July 1946, p. 10, https://www.newspapers.com, subscription database, accessed June 2020.

[14] “Contender Face Day of Judging,” The Ogden Standard Examiner (Ogden, Utah), 13 July 1946, p. 8, https://www.newspapers.com, subscription database, accessed June 2020.

[15] “Ogden Fete Judges Choose Pioneer Sweetheart, Aids,” The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah), 14 July 1946, p. 10, https://www.newspapers.com, subscription database, accessed June 2020.

[16] “Tooele Girl Wins Coveted Honor Over Field of 20,” The Ogden Standard Examiner (Ogden, Utah), 14 July 1946, p. 1, https://www.newspapers.com, subscription database, accessed June 2020.

[17] “Famed Trio Arrives for Celebration,” The Ogden Standard Examiner (Ogden, Utah), 18 July 1946, p. 18, https://www.newspapers.com, subscription database, accessed June 2020.

[18] “Broncs Prove Tough to Top On Opening Night of Rodeo,” The Ogden Standard Examiner (Ogden, Utah), 20 July 1946, p. 1, https://www.newspapers.com, subscription database, accessed June 2020.

[19] “12,000 Thrill To Pioneer Days’ Rodeo,” The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah), 21 July 1946, p. 10, https://www.newspapers.com, subscription database, accessed June 2020.

[20] “Rodeo Heads Pioneer Events As Ogden Awaits Parade,” The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah), 23 July 1946, p. 8, https://www.newspapers.com, subscription database, accessed June 2020.

[21] “Award Declined; Will Be Split,” The Ogden Standard Examiner (Ogden, Utah), 23 July 1946, p. 8, https://www.newspapers.com, subscription database, accessed June 2020.

[22] “Tooele Girl Wins Coveted Honor Over Field of 20,” The Ogden Standard Examiner (Ogden, Utah), 14 July 1946, p. 1, https://www.newspapers.com, subscription database, accessed June 2020; and,

“Wyoming Couple Weds,” The Post Register (Idaho Falls, Idaho), 10 July 1946, p. 5, http://newspapers.com, subscription database, accessed June 2020.

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